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January 19, 2022

How the Toxic Culture of “New Year, New You” is the cause of our January Blues.

 

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January dawned for me as it does every year: with a sense of lightness and hope.

I turned into the new year with a renewed sense of purpose. But then a few days ago, just halfway through the month, I found myself thinking an old, familiar thought: “What’s the point?”

After just two weeks of ambitious and somewhat frenzied activity, my focus shifted from the promise of 2022 to the reality.

Friends called me, struggling, distressed, and hopeless. People went back to hating their jobs. Those who didn’t have jobs despaired about their careers. The media returned to portents of doom. The world turned on its axis, and suddenly, the new year lost its sparkle.

Research shows that suicide rates peak in spring and summer, which indicates that depression is at its worst then. But it’s also suggested that in winter, depression is much more widespread.

In the UK and Ireland, the third Monday in January is called “Blue Monday,” and it’s reputed to be the most depressing day of the year. (Never mind that it was coined by a UK travel company who were probably trying to sell sunny holidays; the name resonated and stuck.)

So why is January so bleak? Why had I found myself mid-way through this first month of the year feeling like everything was futile?

People often attribute their low mood in January to the weather, but this year it occurred to me that something deeper was taking hold. I was responding to the deeply ingrained cultural programming that abounds at this time of year. It’s called “New Year, New You.”

While New Year’s resolutions are self-improvement intentions people set at the turn of the year, “New Year, New You” can be thought of as the underlying concept that we need to change—and that January is the time to do it.

Even if we don’t subscribe to the idea of New Year’s resolutions, we’re often still influenced by this motto. All year long, we’re sent messages that we’re not enough: not thin enough, not stylish enough, not wealthy enough, not popular enough, and without enough work-life balance. And this unconscious programming whirrs into overdrive at the end of the year.

As a result, many of us still find ourselves placing a microscope over our lives on December 31st. Goals get crystallised into cut-and-dried phrases: “Lose weight,” “Get fit,” “Find a partner,” “Stop smoking,” or “Make more money.” All sculpted from the bedrock belief that we’re not enough.

But self-improvement is a good thing, right? Assessing where we’re falling short, and deciding to change things?

Well, maybe.

Unfortunately, the approach I’ve often taken to self-betterment has been impulsive and even downright delusional. Driven by the pressure of the new year, I’ve often formulated intentions that were unrealistic and over-ambitious. Then a few weeks into January, I would find that I couldn’t stick to them. So, I’d fall into negative thinking—berating and judging myself for falling short, yet again. Then, on cue, would come January’s characteristic depression.

Any of this sound familiar?

This year, in spite of all my self-awareness, I found myself following the same grim trajectory of hope: activity, then frustration, then despair. But then it occurred to me:

What if the disappointment I felt didn’t have anything to do with me or the changes I wanted to make in my life? What if the issue was the unconscious expectations I had about the new year?

For children in the Western world, Christmas is a magical time. Reindeers fly and a fat man slides down chimneys, giving free gifts to all the “good” children. I spent my formative years believing in that myth. As an adult, I wonder if that fantastical thinking is still buried within the child-like part of me. Because even though I stopped making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago, a part of me still believes that when the clock strikes 12 on January 1st, my life will become a clean slate. My disappointments, tribulations, and bad habits will be locked away in “last year.”

The new year will magically swoop in like Santa and give me the things I want because I wrote a list.

I see people around me hypnothised by the same fantasy, and it can be witnessed on a global scale too. Remember 2020, the first year of the pandemic? How many of us talked about 2021 being a fresh start? How many of us genuinely bade “good riddance” to the old year, as though our international problems—Covid, political unrest, and unsavoury leaders, were magically going to desist with some arbitrary numbers on a calendar?!

No wonder many of us come to mid-January feeing low and thinking “What’s the point?” The trajectory we set for ourselves was futile. It was formulated from magical thinking.

I’m not saying that we’re idiots for hoping that our lives will improve, or that no one sticks to their New Year’s intentions. But if you’re feeling low and blue this January, then please consider if it’s because you’re blaming yourself for not fulfilling the mythical New Year’s promise for change.

If insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results (a Narcotics Anonymous phrase often misattributed to Albert Einstein), then approaching the new year with such blind faith is an exercise in madness.

Any successful person will tell you that real change is gradual. It comes from consistently making the right choices over long periods of time. However, the right choices aren’t always the obvious choices. They’re the most realistic choices. They’re the choices that you can easily make, over and over. And to see these choices requires honestly assessing where you are and who you are. It requires reflection and self-acceptance.

And that is what January provides a perfect conduit for.

You don’t have to start this year like a lion. Instead, start like a lamb.

If you look at the world around you, you’ll see that January is not a time for action. The earth is still sleeping. This isn’t the time to pound the pavement or do green juice cleanses. It’s a time to nourish, rest, repair, and dream. It’s the moment to consider what’s working for you and not working for you. It’s only by honestly facing where you are, and quietly reflecting, that you’ll see what your next best step is. That’s how to come up with a grounded, realistic plan.

For me, all the actual changes I’ve made in my life have come from understanding myself more deeply and then making small, realistic goals.

I begin with something so easy that I can’t possibly fail. For example:

>> If you’re unfit and want to get fit, don’t start jogging. Start walking. Progress to jogging.

>> If you don’t practice yoga or meditation or breathing exercises, and want to, don’t start with an hour a day. Start with two minutes. Build up to your goal.

>> If you’re introverted or depressed and struggle to leave the house, don’t fill your calendar. Start with one or two social engagements a week. Get dressed by a certain time of day instead of staying in your pajamas.

In my case, my January blues arose when I began comparing myself to the culturally inspired, idealised version of my life that I believed I should be living. When I saw I didn’t measure up to that, I lost hope in the new year and stopped working toward my goals. But because I quickly realised what was happening, the blue mood I experienced was only momentary.

So, my wish for you this year is: be gentle, be kind, and assess what the more sustainable course of action is. Don’t compare yourself to who you think you should be. Aspire to accepting yourself as you are, right now.

And then, in February, take your first small step in the right direction.

~

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